Metaphysical Poetry


Discuss the uses of metaphors of colonization in metaphysical poetry
and/or Milton.

"Movement across or through space becomes a process 
of colonization of that space."

During the period of Milton's Paradise Lost as well as myriad of poets
construction of an epoque submerged in metaphysical literature, a
number of significant events both socio-political, entwined with a
systematic religious metamorphism of the sixteenth and seventeenth
century led to a time of unrest and discovery. The creators and
author's of work of this periods placed their emphasis not specifically
on a level of morality or self understanding but rather a rediscovery
of the body and soul, almost a form of existensionalism or physical
cosmos with a geography. 'All things are subject to the Mind... It
measures in one thought the whole circumference of heaven and by the
same line it takes the geography of the earth. The seas, the air, the
fire all things of either, are within the comprehension of the mind.
It has an influence on them all, whence it lakes all that may be
useful, all that may be helpful in government. No limitation is
prescribed to it, no restriction is upon it, but in a free scope it has
a liberty upon all. And in this liberty is the excellence of the mind;
in this power and composition of the mind is perfection of a man... Man
is an absolute master of himself; his own safety, and tranquillity by
God... are made dependent on himself.'1 In this short example of
Puritanism text as it stands, alone contains a number of various
references to the process of colonization, of expanding, perceiving all
geographically and manipulating, making man or perhaps more
specifically the colonisers omniscient and God-like. The crusader
self-reliant and independent with the knowledge that God is his
guardian of safety and tranquillity. In this particular the growing
number of Puritans played a significant role both in the cultivation
and transformation of the Christian religion and foreign territories.
The Puritans themselves comprised of those in the Church of England
unhappy with limitations of the Elizabethan Settlement; some were
Presbyterians, and all were to some extent or other Calvinists (though
not all Calvinists were Puritans). They were a people of scrupulous
moral rigour and favoured plain styles of dress, detesting any form of
luxury or decadence. The name Puritan later became a catch-all label
for the disparate groups who led much of the New World colonization and
won the English Civil Wars. New World colonization began as early as
1480 by English seamen performing spectacular feats of exploration
under Elizabeth I. These seamen made various claims of territorial
annexation in America in an effort to outflank their Spanish rivals
however, all foundations of permanent colonies proved abortive until
the early 17th century. Thereafter, there was steady progress in
acquiring territories in the Caribbean and mainland North America.
Much settlement in the latter had a religious motive, with colonists
seeking to escape the constraints of the English Established Church.
As a result, there was an uneasy relationship between many colonial
administrations and the royal government at home. Further to these
tensions the 'colonies were split in their allegiances during the civil
wars in Britain, but Charles I derived little useful help from those
who supported his cause. The collapse of James II regime (1688-9)
proved a blow to the efforts of Westminster to encroach on ! self-rule
in North America. The relationship between the centre and the colonies
remained problematic right until the War of American Independence.'2
The metaphysical tradition established during the seventeenth century
can find its foundations in the colonization explorations and the
domestic unrest caused by the civil wars. The combination of the two
contextually, both in spirituality, imagery and definitions of time and
space; have the unique effect of creating a devout religious
protagonist's perceptions of his environment and its history,
encompassed in as often was the case one work of art, as a testimony to
the period and the Church of England. Frequently such works could be
found in the form of poetry, commonly regarded as the most eloquent and
essential part of the English language as a means of communications,
via its plurality, richness of language and syntax. Poets of the era
harnessed the tools of poetry to the spiritual essence of their
communication create an impact of divine, gospel-like proportions,
which were received and regarded as perhaps the most innovative and
highly appreciated works of poetry! to have arisen.

One such poet was John Milton whose epic work Paradise Lost (written in
1667) was ultimately the last and great Adamite3 work. John Milton
(1608-74), was an English poet, the son of a composer of some
distinction. The preparation for his life's work included attendance
at St. Paul's School, Christ's College and Cambridge for several
years. His reputation as a poet preceded him as addressed to the
conscience of Europe. As fame through his work augmented so with it
did his political career. 'The theme of Paradise Lost (completed 1665,
published 1667) had been in Milton's mind since 1641. It was to be a
sacred drama then; but when in 1658 his official duties were lightened
so as to allow him to write, he chose the epic form. The first three
books reflect the triumph of the godly--so soon to be reversed; the
last books, written in 1663, are tinged with despair. God's kingdom is
not of this world. Man's intractable nature frustrates the planning of
the wise. The hetero! dox theology of the poem which is made clear in
his late De Doctrina Christiana did not trouble Protestant readers till
modern critics examined it with hostile intent.'4 Part of the poem's
greatness, apart from its length, is a function of the visual immediacy
with which Milton realizes the imagined scenes. Milton has been
criticized for glossing over certain contemporary developments in
scientific and intellectual thought (the astronomical ambiguities in
book VII, for example), eg

'.... What if the sun 
Be centre to the world , and other stars
By his attractive virtue and their own 
Incited, dance about him various rounds?5 
Their wander course now high, now low, then still
Progressive, retrograde, or standing still,
In sixth thou seest, and what if seventh to these
The planet earth, so steadfast though she seem,
Insensibly three different motions move?6 
Which else to several spheres thou must ascribe,7 

The poem's realism is that of a myth, and its credibility dependent on
the outlines of Christian belief, rather than specific historical
details. The entire concern or major theme of Paradise Lost is to
confute predestination and demonstrate the freedom of will. However
Satan is portrayed as an almost romantic, recognizable character with
whom we share every twist and turn his thinking takes throughout his
physical and mental journey. Satan can easily be perceived as the bold
intrepid colonist, not lacking the courage of his convictions, be it at
the expense of being exiled from the vaults of heaven. With the
strength of classical precedents, Milton's cosmology refracts a
seemingly incomprehensible geography of fantastic proportions,
utilising allusive language to describe the indescribable.
Nevertheless this did not deter some illustrators attempting to
recapture the imagery of Militon's Cosmos.

Satan's fall from grace to a desolate place of fathomless voids, yet
unpopulated, turns Satan's disgrace into a voyage before a quest with a
mission, not unlike that of the colonisers. In Book I the voyage of
these unchartered and as yet inanimate destinations began when Satan
and his host are:

Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' Ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Admantine chains and penal Fire.

For nine days they fall through Chaos till:

 Hell at last 
Yawning receiv'd them whole, and on them clos'd,
Hell their fit habitation fraught with fire
Unquenchable, the house of woe and pain.

They splash down into a burning lake, and, looking around, discover
themselves much changed from their original angelic form, similarly
their surroundings are:

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames 
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace 
And rest can never dwell, where hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end

>From which they make their way to land:

... yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wild,
The seat of desolation, void of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful.

Nonetheless, like a colonizer in a one of the worst far flung corners
of the globe, claiming whatever he passes as his own, Satan makes the
best of his circumstances:
 Farewell happy Fields 
Where Joy for ever dwells; Hail horrors, hail 
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
receive thy new Possessor

Meanwhile the demons begin work creating a splendiforous palace,
Pandemonium, perhaps the most palatial structure in Hell's history to
match that of heaven. Satan's acceptance of his situation, is
analogous to a determined settler determined to cultivate his
surroundings as his own before expanding further afield.

Later the demons swarm to the council to decide on an acceptable plan
of action. Amidst the demons and second in rank is Envy; he tells of
"another World, the happy seat / Of some new Race cal'd Man," and
suggests that they subvert it "and drive as we were drive,/ The puny
habitants; or, if not drive/ Seduce them to our Party." This is
perhaps the most substantive and overbearing allusion to colonisation
of the New World, meant literally in this context. The eager demons
might well be a metaphorical representation of the religious convoys
who were frequently sent ahead with the intent of settling and were
hell bent on converting the original inhabitants of the land into
their own kind, to adopt them into their religion, their community, so
that by manipulating and corrupting them they could seize advantage of
their innocence by blatantly encroaching on their land and property,
with minimal opposition.

Another part adventure to discover wide 
That dismal World, if any Clime perhaps 
Might yield them easier habitation

Satan's heroic-like journey continues through treacherous conditions,
having to pass inhospitable terrain and fauna, before reaching "thrice
threefold" gates of Hell, three of brass, three of iron, and three of
adamantine rock, guarded by Sin and Death. On managing to escape
Milton's world of Hell he eventually reaches earth where subtly tempts
Eve with the forbidden fruit of knowledge until Eve concedes and eats
leading to their loss of paradise. An analogy could be drawn here
between Satan and the colonisers of the period enduring a tiresome
journey and then tempting the inhabitants (Adam and Eve) with the
prospect of wealth through trade; and on acceptance, thus marking their
own loss and transgression into a state of perpetual inferiority
thereafter in respect of the colonisers. Adam and Eve the original
settlers are beguiled by Satan's corruptness through their own innocent
naivity. In respect of Paradise Lost and the theme of colonisation we
can the course marked by Satan via his journey (see diagram) is
regarded as his geography, despite having finally accomplished his
course of action.

Further on in books V-VII we have elaborate description of the
landscape of Paradise, which is used the manifesto of colonialism
through religious dynamics and instability. The schematics of
geography and the final mappings that became increasingly important, in
so far as territories, progression of colonization and like, even God
himself charters the stars in a calculated Genesis

He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscibe 
This universe, an all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure,
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds
This by thy just circumference8 

Milton himself somewhat of a nationalist puritan poet in response to
the issue of reformation, firm in the belief that the English were
God's chosen people addressed parliament asking:

Why else was this Nation chos'n before any other, that out of her as
out of Sion should be proclam'd and sounded forth the first tidings and
trumpet of Reformation of all Europ. And had it not bin the obstinat
perversnes of our Prelats against the divine and admirable spirit of
the Wicklef, to suppresse him as a scismatic an innovator... the glory
of reforming all our neighbours had bin compleatly ours.9

Similarly if not more so the concepts of colonialism, the systematic
functions of identifying, locating and securing are no better
displayed, conveyed or apparent than in writings of the metaphysical
 Man is all symmetrie, 
Full of proportions, one limbe to another,
 And all to all the world besides:
 Each part may call the furthest, brother:
For head with for hath private amitie, 
 And bothe with moons and tides.10

In this brief extract taken from George Herberts poem Man we can see
the extent to which this evangelical poem - using maps and geometry to
define the protestant server and his maker. A new method of language
and metaphors had become available and poets did not hasten to
incorporate as many different styles as possible to create an identity,
using the terminology associated to science, in order to define. A
place for everything and everything in its place, reaching the
conclusion that God is omnipresent, after having used language to
process His location. Likewise John Donne an acclaimed poet of his
period, and as Dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral was a seemingly
inexhaustible source of spirituality with which to ordain his poems.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below
Oh my America, my new found lande,
My kingdome, safeliest when with on man man'd
My myne precious stones my Empiree
How blest I am this discovering thee11 

In this his poem named, Elegie: To His Mistress Going to Bed the
allusions to colonialism are by no means marginalised. Donne paints a
scene of a woman undressing, in which his description has the duality
of de-sexualising, whilst sexualising. The emphasis and attention paid
on material objects such as the garments are for all intents and
purposes dehumanising. The description of clothes are paralleled to
the colonial, metaphysical conceits discovery and of ownership, whilst
mapping. Ostensibly what Donne endeavours to do is colonise the body
of the woman. Although considerable language and detail is spent in
describing the layers of clothing the purpose of which to emphasise the
letting go of material objects. The infinite quest of the spiritualist
could be that longing for the return to innocence, of spirituality and
spiritual embodiment can only be achieved when irrelevant and
extravagant thoughts of materialism and clothes are disregarded. Once
the woman is void of! all external graces and is the way nature
intended, only then does the journey of exploration commence, to
discover the essence of human nature, the spiritual manifestation of
passion merely acting as a catalyst in the celebration of sexuality.
The theme of a quest, searching, mapping territory or bodies, geography
of mind, body and soul, unrest and all that is external is apparent in
a large proportion of what was written in the seventeen century,
religious unsettlement serving only to fuel, scepticism or convictions
further. The majority of metaphysical poems have similar themes and
imagery, often set in room, study or office, any private enclosure
reminiscent of a confession booth. Writing poetry in the form of a
confessional is used as a moment of introspection. The new awareness
of questions rising with new religious identities of new churches
necessitated these occasions of profound reverence and occasional
enlightenment, in a journey through their own spirituality. Poetry
was writing for private readership, a confessional in the form of a
diary, debating with themselves and God. The status of body, that of
men and women, the relationship between themselves with one another,
and God were all predominati! ng factors in their writing. Poetry was
written private realms for a private readership with no public address.
A parody may even be draw between Milton circumstances and his vision
of Satan, during on of his profound moments of reflection:

Me miserable! which was shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;12 

I may be useful to think of Satan in the light of 'likening spiritual
to corporal forms', partly as representative of the public world of
politics and rebellion, and his presentation as an exploration of the
ambitions and failures, the egotism and despair, that public life
offers. In this his role is therefore complemented in the poem by the
private, domestic world of Adam and Eve, in whose interpersonal
relations are enacted the possibilities and problems of freedom and
self-restraint. In metaphysical poetry the body was seen as a secular
vessel, embodied with a spiritual love of the world, attached to a
humanist concept that pre mined to embody God within the
body of man. Colonialism expanse across the America's induced imagery
through language; exploring, discovery, conquering, divine protection,
geometry, geography, astronomy, navigation and science were the
foundations on which metaphysical poetry evidently propelled itself to
growing popularity at a time of general social, political and religious
unrest. The Sunne Rising also created by Donne was slightly more
satirical, yet maintaining that man was ultimately the ruler of his own
world, and God being embodied in wherever he be therein. The sun is
employed as a metaphysical conceit, with man being able to block it
and the other element with a single wink.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think? 
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,13 

With reference of imperial history he no longer needs to explore to
India, for it is already traced and recorded on a map before him. His
self-elevation and lack of humanity are comparable to that of Milton's
Satan. Around the same period other works of post-colonial art were be
developed, no doubt heavily influenced by contemporary issues. One
such example is Shakespeare's final work and tragi-comedy The Tempest
(1611), interposed and concerned with the theme of the elevation of one
myth above another, recurrent impact of colonialism, morality and the
loss of innocence. Shakespeare's unique style of writing is as a
direct result of a plethora of influences, one of which was
'Montaigne's essay Of Cannibals which discussed the value and the way
of life of societies which had not been affected by civilisation of a
European type. In addition to this essay a pamphlet circulate called
The Discovery of the Bermudas , otherwise called the Isle of Divels,
may have played a crucial role. This pamphlet described the bold
adventures of a religious group of colonist travelling in a convoy of
ships from London to Virginia. However during the voyage, the flagship
was separated from the remainder! of the convoy in a storm. The
maverick ship inadvertently blew towards Bermuda before being tossed
onto some rocks. The colonists lived on the islands until they had
built boats in which to continue their voyage. The story of their
almost miraculous survival aroused considerable interest in England and
echoes of their adventure can be found in The Tempest. With little
regard of the more elaborate themes images the tale is one of a landing
on a island, a veritable paradise, already inhabited by Caliban (often
spelt 'canibal' by Elizabethans by transposing the letters 'n' and 'l')
a wild, deformed uncivilised beast (representative of native settlers),
who is quickly manipulated, overthrown and enslaved by Prospero (King
of Milan). Caliban and his environment are parallelled to those of the
Garden of Eden and Caliban himself is elemental. As the story
progresses and the tyrannical relationship between the two continually
increasing, Caliban's intellect is worthy of argument against Prospero
for having denied him his birthright. Prospero's aim of teaching
Caliban was to increase his indisputable control over him, by
subverting him into an incomplete and image of his master, defective of
all other attributes ie of magic. Caliban, similar to every colonised
people before him adapted his adopted culture and power of speech
inflic! ted upon him as a weapon to communicate his own indignation
and animosity towards his oppressor. And despite being frequently
referred to as a crude savage, disfigured, and evil Caliban exemplifies
a better set of values than most of the 'civilised' characters in the
play. This image derives from speculation regarding the popular
English belief that uncivilised pagans were below their civilised
counterparts in the hierarchy which had God at its apex and inanimate
nature at it base. However a few individuals were beginning to
question this assumption and 'there is evidence in the play that
Shakespeare believed that the corruption in a civilised man was more
abhorrent than any natural albeit uncivilised behaviour.'14 At a time
when many books and sermons, effected a characteristic Renaissance
union between moral and political implications, and concerned
themselves with the task of persuading the public that exploration was
an honourable and indeed a sanctified activity and Drake was compared
to Moses, combining voyaging and mystagogy a practical justification
of "the lawfulnesse of Discovering". It was a somewhat sophistical
argument by Purchas, in favour of the propriety of usurping the
rights of native populations, and an insistence, half-mystagogic,
half-propagandist, on the temperate, fruitful nature of the New World,
and the unspoilt purity of its inhabitants. 'The True Declaration
defends colonizing, on the ground that it diffuses the true religion
and has authority from Solomon's trade to Ophir (whether it lay in the
East or, as Columbus thought15 in the West Indies). There is room for
all; and in any case the natives cannot be regarded as civilized
people.'16 The revelations of The Tempest of watching Caliban suffer at
the hands of Prospero affords interesting material for examination.
Caliban endures his abuse and insistent that he has deprived him of
what is rightfully his, and this perhaps may have been Shakespeare's
way of confronting his contemporary pro-colonising audience with the
problems of ownership of newly discovered lands.


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